Stop, Drop, and Reconsider: On the Relation Between Religious Belief and Action

Stop, Drop, and Reconsider: On the Relation Between Religious Belief and Action October 5, 2015

Kathryn Tanner is a first-rate theologian. Her book, The Politics of God: Christian Theologies and Social Justiceis by no means hot-off-the-press (it was published in 1992), but it is still an important resource for exploring the relation between theology and politics.

Tobias Lindman, via Flickr, CC
Tobias Lindman, via Flickr, CC

In the book, she tries to untangle the intricate relationship between religious belief (Christian theological doctrines, ideas, concepts, etc.) and practices and attitudes. The question she explores is whether it is possible to extricate Christian beliefs, or elements of Christian beliefs, in order to determine which beliefs or which elements of beliefs are most productive in the project of progressive politics–or, in less ideological terms–in the pursuit of social justice.

This is a daunting task, as she notes, because Christian beliefs have so often detracted from the pursuit of social justice and have even contributed to the intensity of social injustice so often in the sordid history of Christianity. But this has not always been the case, nor is it always the case in every generation. Christian theological ideas have in fact been a powerful motivator in the work of social justice; among other things, they have spawned creative action, have motivated prophetic critiques of the status quo, and they have provided hope and empowerment for marginalized and suppressed people.

A tricky thing about her project, Tanner admits, is that the very same religious belief can be used in the service of a good end (in the project of social justice) or in the service of a bad end (maintaining an unjust status quo or even perpetuating injustice or inhumane treatment of others).

So, it is not always the particular belief that is the crux of the issue; there are often other factors, other motivators. Nonetheless, Tanner holds that beliefs have a kind of logical priority over actions. Thus, they call for a rigorous examination–either for their possibilities of appropriation, application (i.e. usefulness) or for the need to critically analyze, refine, or dispense with altogether.

Here is how she explains the relationship between belief and action:

This whole account of the logical relations among beliefs, attitudes, and actions highlights the way beliefs about what is the case influence action, either directly or by way of the attitudes that motivate or favor such action. Beliefs have power over actions and attitudes to the extent that such beliefs are necessary in order for those actions and attitudes to make sense. Beliefs have power over actions since beliefs about what is the case are necessary in order for action to appear reasonable, meaningful, practically possible, and motivated.

Because these relations of intelligibility hold, beliefs can promote certain forms of action and attitude–those that make sense given those beliefs. Or beliefs can counterman certain forms of action and attitude, undercutting attitudes by making them appear out of place, bizarrely quixotic, or nonsensical, and undercutting forms of action by making them seem unreasonable, unmotivated, irrelevant, or pointless. In short, a philosophical perspective on the connection between Christian beliefs and comportment [a “happy” alignment of beliefs with corresponding action] shows that it is wrong to account for variations in Christian actions and attitudes by bypassing the influence of Christian beliefs. Christian beliefs have the power to direct the attitudes and behaviors that Christians display (p. 16).

I appreciate her point because, as a theology professor, I am of course observant of the ways that theological convictions impact–or at least have the potential to impact in a variety of ways–attitudes, values, behaviors, and practical actions. This impact could be observed in individuals and in communities or entire societies.

Tanner’s book was published over 30 years ago. Since then, the neurosciences have discovered a great deal about the dominating role of the brain, and in particular the extent that sub-conscious intuitions play in shaping moral behavior and the extent to which such intuitions predict behavior. This does not mean that theology is not involved or that religious beliefs cannot be analyzed as an element of human action.

But it does make me wonder if Tanner would revise or soften (maybe she has?) her emphasis on the theological beliefs as a grounding source for action and attitude, given that so many of our political and social actions are motivated by something other than cognition? The ideas often only serve as confirmation of our intuitive biases.  Nonetheless, those ideas are still real; they are still powerful; and it is still possible to stop, drop, and reconsider our religious beliefs in light of their real-world impact–or lack thereof.


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